Virtual Reality Behind Bars For Real Change

Virtual reality technologies could have a wide range of applications for the education and rehabilitation of prisoners.
Virtual reality technologies could have a wide range of applications for the education and rehabilitation of prisoners.

By Christopher Zoukis

Already a hot topic in the gaming world, virtual and augmented reality technologies are slowly spilling into other venues such as museum exhibits and educational institutions. But could these technologies someday be used behind bars? In prisons, where education and training resources can be scarce and difficult to administer, could VR be used to help deliver much-needed skills, education and rehabilitation?

Immersive 360-degree videos can completely transport users into a new environment. The possibilities for its application are endless, as technology advances so quickly. Virtual and augmented reality could be used to supply career training using real life scenarios — including mock-hazardous situations — without any of the actual risk.

VR trades instruction might, for example, give prisoners access to virtual versions of a construction site or a kitchen in a home — training scenarios usually not possible for most prison inmates.

Besides immersive career and vocational training, VR can be used to create individualized learning plans, virtual field trip opportunities such as to museums, galleries and even other countries, and access to books and libraries.

Virtual Reality, which relies on images and scenarios rather than text, may also benefit low-level learners and those with language barriers, ensuring a wide range of learning needs are covered. It has the advantage of providing the best view for demonstrations for all users, instead of different points of view found in traditional classroom settings. With it, students can review and repeat any information as needed.

In addition, virtual reality can let its users learn at their own paces. That means if a user wants to advance quickly through material or access more material, they can. Compare this to the limitations and constraints of a traditional classroom, where students are expected to move through material as one group at the same pace.

Beyond education and career skills, virtual reality technology has been established as a useful treatment for mental health issues. It can be used to deliver cognitive behavioral therapy to help patients change negative or destructive thoughts and behavior, and to help treat PTSD. It has been used successfully for reduction of stress, anxiety and phobias. Given that 56 percent of prisoners in state prisons and 64 percent of inmates in local jails have some form of mental illness, the rehabilitative power and potential cost savings in using virtual reality are worth examining.

While the positive benefits of VR are clear, some people may have concerns. Those focused on the punishment aspects of prison may see the use of virtual and augmented reality as giving prisoners access to expensive games and entertainment. But in reality, content would be focused on educational and vocational skills, literacy, and programs such as mental health. Educating and rehabilitating prisoners ultimately reduces recidivism, translates into numerous types of costs savings, and helps integrate released prisoners into society, making them contributing members of communities.

On the flipside, virtual reality can supply great insight into prisons and prison conditions for those not inside. Project Empathy is one such project that supplies a first-person-experience glimpse into various aspects of society using virtual reality films. Viewers get an intimate look at what prisons are like on the inside, including a feel for solitary confinement. Project Empathy kick started its film series first with a focus on prisons to create a dialogue on why prison reform is necessary

Despite perceived potential negatives, the possibilities for virtual reality technologies to enact positive change for prisoners are worth serious consideration. It could be a powerful tool for delivering a full compendium of educational and rehabilitative services during incarceration. More than 650,000 ex-offenders are released into our nation’s communities each year. Don’t we want them to have the best chance at being capable members of society?

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com